Friday, August 17, 2007

remembering Jerre Mangione

In 1998 Jerre Mangione passed away. Jerre had been on the faculty of English at Penn since the early sixties, and retired perhaps a year or two after I arrived in '85. Because of his involvement in the 1930s as a young administrator in the Federal Writers' Project, I sought him out, lunched with him, interviewed him, and came to admire him. I read his novels and of course studied his history of the FWP, The Dream and the Deal. Soon after his passing the Pennsylvania Gazette asked me to write a short piece memorializing him. The whole essay is here. Here is a paragraph toward the end:

One afternoon in 1987 I interviewed my emeritus colleague at length. I asked him what things might have been like, for him and other FWP writers, had Congress not cut short the life of New Deal-era federal support of public arts projects. Jerre joked modestly that The Dream and the Deal would have been a longer book. But then as my tape ran he went silent for a long time, and bore a pained look. He might have been remembering, for instance, that at the height of the Cold War, when the New England American Studies Association gathered at Amherst College to discuss the New Deal arts projects, an academic critic of American literature named Barry Marks read a paper in which he argued that "the most impressive single feature of the WPA Arts Program was its lack of respect for creativity." For Jerre, on the contrary, "the writers and nonwriters on the project somehow managed to play their role well, so that in spite of all the administrative blunders, the political imbroglios, and the Congressional salvos, [we] produced more good books than anyone dreamed [we] could." I remember Jerre Mangione as a writer who wrote his own "good books," yes, but also as one who made others' literally possible -- which, contra Barry Marks, was and is the highest praise.

Readers of this blog who have trouble finding copies of The Dream and the Deal should feel free to contact me (use the little envelope icon below). I have a box of copies Jerre himself gave me and would be delighted to mail you one.